Dustin Johnson proving a master of the mind ahead of Augusta
Brian Keogh looks at the favourite heading into the year's first major in Georgia16:12 Tuesday 4 April 2017, 16:12 4 Apr 2017
When he was previewing the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield, top US writer Rick Reilly fired one of his salvos in the direction of Dustin Johnson, whose ability to turn triumph into disaster in the majors into something akin to an art form.
Never regarded as a deep thinker, Johnson was, according to Reilly, capable of huge prodigious physical feats that were only on a par with his mental absences.
"Do you realise he hit a 225-yard 7-iron Thursday? And a 290-yard 3-iron? But he's also so dense, light bends around him," Reilly wrote of the two DJs — the mega jock and the super dunce.
The image of Johnson and the big, bad gunslinger with porridge for brains has never gone away. But that doesn't mean he can't win the Masters, where his record reads since 2009 reads T30, T38, T38, DNP, T13, Cut, T6 and T4.
It was in 2009 that Rory McIlroy made his debut at Augusta National — his record is T20, cut, T15, T40, T25, T8, 4 and T10.
But while McIlroy's record is clearly better, what may give Johnson an edge is not his current form but the way he appears to worry little about what others are doing and his ability to take disaster on the chin and keep going.
Dustin Johnson walks up the 3th fairway at the Hogan Bridge during a practice round at The Masters at Augusta National GC. Image: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
"Self-belief is obviously a huge thing," McIlroy said of what makes golf tough. "The mental struggle that you face on the golf course, day in, day out. They say golf is played on a six-inch golf course between your ears, so mentally I think golf is one of the toughest sports for that."
Johnson may have capitulated when he saw McIlroy in his rear view mirror at the Tour Championship in Atlanta last year and the Ulsterman stole the FedEx Cup title from under his nose.
But unlike McIlroy, Spieth or Day, who sometimes give the impression they are mutually impressed by each other's gifts, Johnson gives few hints that he's paying any attention to anyone or anything.
It's a sensation that was noted by Pádraig Harrington as he sat at home watching the game's top players over the past month.
"At the end of the day, DJ is playing the golf of his life at the moment. He really has peaked. He is really on form," Harrington said.
"The thing DJ has that is interesting, because while there are a number of great players in the game at the moment, I get the impression they are all looking over their shoulder for other players; worried about other players.
"When Tiger was No. 1 in the world, he was never thinking about anybody else. He knew his B game was better than everybody else's [A game].
"Rory is under pressure with the way DJ is playing to bring his A game and that's tough enough."
What sets Johnson apart from Spieth, Day and McIlroy right now is that he appears to be growing stronger by the week.
Quite apart from his power, it's his putting and his wedge game that makes him the man to beat.
Dustin Johnson celebrated victory in the World Golf Classic - Dell Match Play golf tournament at Austin Country Club during his last outing before The Masters. Image: USA TODAY Network/SIPA USA/PA Images
Colin Montgomerie believes that's the aspect of the game that sets Johnson apart right now.
"He's the most improved wedge player over the last two years by a country mile," Montgomerie said.
"I remember reports coming through from my teammates at Celtic Manor in 2010, and they said: 'Oh, don't worry, Dustin has got 120 yards, he won't hit the green.' Those days are gone. Those days are gone.
"Believe me, Dustin Johnson, he's now hitting it to five-foot, never mind missing the green. It's a huge difference in his game and that's what he had to work on, and he has, and he was 10th in the world then and now he's No. 1 by a mile."
McIlroy's demons at Augusta National and the weight of history on his shoulders as he bids to complete the career Grand Slam are two big hurdles to clear.
Spieth, despite his brilliance at Augusta National, has his own demons to keep at bay following his collapse on the 12th hole last year.
As for Day, his mother's illness and form that has yielded just one top-five finish since last September does not suggest a man fully focused on the job in hand.
Will Johnson wobble again should a charging McIlroy appear in his rear view mirror? It's possible.
But given his form and his confidence, he also has the horsepower to leave the rest in his dust.
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